Future of Egyptian churches filled with hope, uncertainty under Muslim rule
Leaning on a crutch to support his broken leg, Coptic Christian activist Boulis Zake explains to our group that the church had encouraged him not to participate in the demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Coptic Orthodox church leaders, he says, regarded former Egyptian president and strongman Hosni Mubarak as a savior.
On Dec. 17, 2010, in a protest leading up to Egypt's Arab Spring revolution, soldiers broke Boulis' femur and arm, and bloodied his head so that he needed 40 stitches.
Christian churches had averaged one violent incident a year over the last 10 years, he says, but lately there have been many more. For example, on New Year's Eve 2010, a bombing outside a church in Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast killed 23 persons and wounded more than 90.
So, we ask him, now that the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafis (pronounced SAL-a-feez) have around 70 percent of the seats in the new Parliament, even if they don't ally with each other, what will the future look like for Christians in Egypt?
Will the government be more like Saudi Arabia and impose a strict interpretation of Islam, banning alcohol, for example, and regulating how women must dress?
"No one knows the future," Boulis tells us.
A reality tour
Our group of eight North Americans is on a Reality Tour organized by Global Exchange, a social justice organization based in San Francisco. The trip was planned to include Jan. 25, the first anniversary of the revolution.
During our two weeks in Egypt, we meet with more than two dozen scholars, activists, pastors, Egyptologists, and Bedouins. The issue of the future for Christians in Egypt keeps coming up.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Christians number roughly 5 percent, or about 4 million, of Egypt's 80 million people. But estimates vary. Nigel Hetherington, an anthropologist who spends an afternoon with our group, puts the number between 8 and 10 percent of the overall population.
For the most part, Muslims and Christians live and work together peacefully, although government practices often discriminate against Christians.
In Luxor, a historic tourist city on the Nile in Upper (southern) Egypt, the Rev. Mahrous Karam, pastor of Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt, describes how the government has bulldozed many homes of his members in order to create a Las Vegas-style, rebuilt Avenue of the Sphinxes. In doing so, government officials promised money as recompense but then didn't deliver on the promises, leaving many homeless, he says.
On the other hand, the Rev. Benjamin Hanna, pastor of St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Luxor, feels positive about church-state relations. In Luxor, he says, interactions between Muslims and Christians are very good. "They all believe in God and read the Koran and the Bible," he tells us, "and if they will follow what those books say, things will be okay."
As we are leaving the church, though, Nigel Hetherington explains that in order to build a church, you need government approval. Muslims, however, do not need similar approval to build a new mosque.
UCC partner helpful
Currently, a 20-man military council is running Egypt — and many questions remain: Who will write the new constitution? When will the president be elected? Both are scheduled to be complete by June, but nothing is definite. And the biggest question of all is when will the military cede power to civilian control?
According to Ibrahim Makram of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), the revolution brought many issues out into the open. "This means that more people will be watching," he says, "so there will be less opportunity for the government to hijack the process or trick the people."
CEOSS is a partner of the United Church of Christ and played a "big role" in the revolution, Makram says. This included supporting the revolution before Mubarak stepped down and aiding in reconciling different cultural groups.
It also serves an important role "on the ground," he says, since its huge program provides social services for 1.5 million persons every year, important for trust-building and reconciliation. These services include health programs and programs related to women's issues, education, and children at risk.
And what about the future for Christians in Egypt under a Muslim government? Makram smiles. "I am personally optimistic," he says.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder, editor emeritus of United Church News, and his wife, Deborah, a retired nurse, recently returned from the Cairo, Egypt, Reality Tour. Global Exchange operates Reality Tours around the globe – offering participants an opportunity to journey to other countries to examine a situation first-hand, to see beyond what is communicated by the mass media.